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Must Transit and Parking Go Hand-in-Hand?

May 02, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Americans are so wedded to their cars that hardly anyone finds it surprising that parking places are an integral part of most construction projects. Businesses and places of assembly rouinely face local government minimum parking rules. The new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis must include 2,500 parking spots to supplement its light rail stop. 

Even planners for the Southwest light rail line are proposing up to 3,565 park-and-ride slots along the 15-mile corridor from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. Apparently, we can't build alternatives to driving without also supplying places to stash what Strong Towns blogger Charles Marohn Jr. calls our "2-ton prosthetic devices."

Recent research has shown that park-and-ride facilities can actually be counterproductive to some transit improvements' ability to reduce driving and road congestion. A Dutch study found that many park-and-rides in the Netherlands induced people to drive to transit instead of biking there or making the whole trip by transit. Some parked and walked someplace nearby and didn't use transit at all.

"The logical conclusion here is that cities should impose parking fees large enough to remove the incentives of free parking but not so large that people drive all the way into work," Eric Jaffe wrote in a summary of the Dutch findings on the Atlantic Cities.

Given relatively steep parking rates in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, that's an idea worth exploring here. Metro Transit has hundreds of free parking lots serving bus and rail transit and even carpooling, and might place up to 15 more at stations along the Southwest LRT.

They won't come cheap. Surface lots cost around $3,500 for each space, ramps as much as $15,000 per space, pricier than many of the vehicles that will sit on them. Depending on the mix of surface and structure, the cost for Southwest LRT parking could range from $12 million to $53 million out of the $1.3 billion project budget, or more if some local officials' desires from more spaces yet are met.

Some think that park-and-rides could be coordinated with development of nearby or adjoining businesses, turning them into mini-commercial nodes in sprawling suburbs. This is being discussed along much of the Southwest line's route through the suburbs. Little if any parking will adjoin the line's five Minneapolis stations, but up to 1,200 spaces may be built at the Mitchell Road suburban terminal.

By contrast, no park-and-rides are planned the length of the downtown-to-downtown Central Corridor LRT, which launches service next year, and the only inner-city p&r on the Hiawatha LRT comprises a mere 170 spots outside the Lake Street station.

It can be argued that extending rail transit to distant suburbs with park and ride as an added incentive will only encourage sprawl that denudes the countryside and busts local-government budgets. But, as Joel Kotkin pointed out in the Daily Beast, and as news of a new Twin Cities suburban housing boom confirms, reports of sprawl's death have been greatly exaggerated.

"The Great Recession did slow the growth of suburbs and particularly exurbs—but recent indicators suggest a resurgence," Kotkin observed. "Ultimately the question of growth revolves around the preferences of consumers," who, he noted, still largely long for single-family homes on large lots.

How to keep more and more sprawlites from choking traffic in the city? Commuter rail, light rail and bus rapid transit can ease the burden on roads, but only if suburban commuters use them. The widening spread of suburbia can't be knitted together with an inner-city-style transit web at a cost anyone is willing to pay, so private cars will remain the chief transport mode there for the foreseeable future.

That's why suburban rail transit needs station-area park-and-rides. Even Jaffe, much more a progressive urbanist than the right-leaning Kotkin, acknowledged that. In the Dutch study, he said, "park-and-ride facilities deep in the suburbs that captured city commuters early into the trip performed well ... These facilities should certainly be monitored  to make sure they're meeting policy goals—especially traffic reduction. Additionally, it seems clear that suburban or 'remote' park-and-rides fulfill more of that goal than those closer to the center city."

Our Metropolitan Council planners seem to have understood this from the get-go. High-quality transit will take different forms in different locations, drawing the self-propelled and bus riders in the big cities, motorists in the sprawling suburbs that are probably here to stay. An effective multimodal transportation system should strive to serve all the different residential styles of its constituents within fiscal limits.

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